Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher speak candidly about the libel action against the New York critic, why King’s Cross is ‘totally dull’ and why a debate is needed about the working conditions in the Middle East
More from: Exclusive AJ interview: Hadid & Schumacher
As ‘global’ architects, do you see a difference in how architecture is perceived in Britain compared with the rest of the world?
Hadid There was a time in Europe when there was a lot of public work, through competitions for museums, stadiums and schools, and that brings architecture into the public realm.
But the role of the architect should increase here [in London] because there is so much work on the skyline. This impacts on the city in an enormous way. And there are so many big sites. I’ve lived here for 40 years, and in the ’80s there was a lot of work, but nothing like what’s happening now.
What are your thoughts on the change?
Hadid There are so many sites in central London which are being demolished and revamped and changed, so there is an amazing opportunity to really rethink what the city is, especially with the skyline.
It’s not just skyscrapers. The role of the architect is very critical, as is the planner and urban planner for these sites, because they impact on [so many] people.
People who go to a museum don’t need a key to go in. [Equally] you can walk into any park or concert hall or whatever it is.
[But] you’re not likely to go to my or anybody’s house unless you’re invited.
And that is a difference between, say, Europe and the UK and America. America and Britain are more corporate in their work, and the stock of the city is mostly done by developers as opposed to investment by the state.
In London [the government] has invested a lot, such as in the rail links. Yet even though we’ve done so many competitions on railway stations and high-speed trains, I’ve never heard of a competition here.
What are your views on the current developments going on in London?
Hadid To be honest, I don’t think London has great new architecture. It’s OK, but it has changed in other ways. By default the ground condition of a city is the most important part of the city, and London is a very lively city. It has become much more cosmopolitan.
When I started living here, hardly anybody went out; when we were kids at school it was interesting because we had to find the funny locations to entertain ourselves. In that sense London has become an amazing metropolitan city. It’s the most diverse culturally in the world, and it is amazing. In London everything is here.
Schumacher You get a lot of exciting new development intermixing with old neighbourhoods and they are very vibrant. You get international populations settling in Shoreditch, Hackney and other places. And you get wealthy elites coming in. But it is not like in Asia. [There] the rich don’t like living in poor areas, they like to do segregated estates and they don’t like living with the urban fabric and being next to working-class neighbourhoods. In London it’s different. I like that here you can have a betting shop next to a greasy spoon next to a stylish boutique. That spirit of London allows for different groups to live next to each other.
Hadid I like that as well. It doesn’t have to be gentrified everywhere.
What I like about east London is that it is still a bit edgy - of course not as much as it was, but it is still there. It is so populated. Ten years ago there was nobody there.
Is this under threat from this corporate attitude to development?
Hadid I am saying that most of the building work in the UK and America isn’t initiated by the state, and they [private and state developers] have very different ambitions.
In London now, every site is OK to develop, everything is up for grabs, and they [developers] realise that, even if they put something there now which is not OK, in five years it will change. They are taking a lot more risk - except not with the architecture.
Schumacher The investment in the built environment in London is of high quality compared with other cities.
Hadid I would say the quality is crisp and high, but that the work is very conservative. The best example is King’s Cross.
King’s Cross is a completely open palette; a blank canvas. They could have done something there which was incredible, and instead it is totally - I’m sorry - dull.
Also you don’t have a sense of space. Considering everything is a square building, they could have done a grid. They could have done a new idea of how the buildings should be represented. It was just a typical separation of plots and just extruding up and that’s it.
Schumacher I’m a bit more hopeful about King’s Cross, but it doesn’t have a grand vision.
Would you say that it is the same situation at other sites, such as Battersea, which is an iconic building?
Schumacher Putting town houses on top of the power station roof is in some ways quite surreal and in some ways strange and edgy.
Hadid Yes, I wouldn’t mind living there. I always thought Battersea would be good as a very grand hotel or entertainment space. It has a central space, a perimeter; it has been left for decades.
Schumacher They had 30 years of failed ideas because the building is a monster. It is more difficult to use properly. Only a very buoyant market with the last bit of central London available allowed them to do it - especially with the new US Embassy and bridge link to Chelsea.
You touch on Chelsea. What are your thoughts on the new Garden Bridge proposal?
Schumacher Exciting. The use of the waterfront is a great boon for the city. You can walk all the way from the Design Museum to Battersea, and the Garden Bridge is part of that.
We would love to compete for the new bridge from the American Embassy to the other side of the river. Pedestrian bridges are really great additions to cities, and the South Bank has a great advantage. I’m curious about how the Garden Bridge will work in practice.
You received a lot of criticism for taking legal action against the New York Review of Books.
Schumacher I tell you why this was, because to some extent it started with the misrepresentation in the Guardian, and I think that was by far the most disappointing.
The newspaper had a misleading headline [‘Zaha Hadid defends Qatar World Cup role following migrant worker deaths’]. The problem was that from there the misinformation spread around.
Hadid The suit was really to correct a mistake. I wasn’t suing the guy because he said some horrible thing. It’s because he made a mistake.
He said a thousand people had died on my site [the Al-Wakrah stadium]. [But] my site hadn’t started. And it’s not really my site. Frankly, it’s not my project; it’s AECOM’s. Why didn’t they criticise AECOM? I don’t get it.
Are people looking for someone to pinpoint an attack, and it happened to be you?
Schumacher It felt like it was a situation of Chinese whispers.
Hadid The American press are very good at checking information, and so I think to make a mistake like that is unacceptable.
I don’t know about working conditions in India or Africa or America or anywhere. Honestly I am not privy to that information. I may be wrong, but I don’t have the power to make these changes. But maybe I am wrong and I could help. But I don’t know how.
There isn’t an institution to go to. And also, frankly, the press who have criticised this should themselves help then.
Schumacher We appreciate that there is public attention and interest, but the journalist’s research is missing. What we find disappointing is, to make their point a bit more prominent, they put Zaha’s name in it.
Hadid It’s the same with Saadiyat Island [In Abu Dhabi]. There are many architects in all these places, but architects don’t have this power. But maybe they could if they are all on it together to form some sort of an alliance to help these people.
I haven’t been to any of these sites and seen the conditions which I have read about.
Schumacher We welcome a public discussion about this and awareness. It is unfair that one would be kind of villanised for something which concerns all of us. We are waiting to see if the Guardian will actually boycott the World Cup reporting.
The implied message is that maybe we shouldn’t be designing stadiums. But they’re never made explicit, these insinuations. There is no spelling out of what the criticism would imply. Does it mean the world is cancelling the World Cup? It is making awareness, but putting our integrity into question through making this awareness.
A problem is that whenever we are asked to talk about it there is a hunt for a headline, and it makes people very cautious to talk about it.
Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher were interviewed by Tim Clark at the launch of their £5 million scheme for a new mathematics gallery at the Science Museum